Rowan Atkinson, Discrimination Law and Creative Free Expression (Or: The News Is Not Not the Nine O’Clock News)

Rowan Atkinson has recently spoken out (Telegraph, BBC) about the effect of discrimination laws on “creative free expression”, with reference to Miriam O’Reilly’s victory over the BBC in her recent age discrimination case. He seems to deplore this intrusion, as if television is somehow an area where society’s mores should not apply.

Previous discrimination law (in the form of the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Acts) had exceptions for “dramatic performances”. You could hire a woman to play a woman, and you could hire a black person to play a black role (Equally you could hire Mr Atkinson to put on a silly voice and play an Indian waiter*, if you find that sort of thing funny. I do.) Pretty much total creative free expression. Judges would almost certainly still apply this today under the Equality Act’s “Occupational Requirements” exception – although there is I suppose a question as to whether there is still exactly the same freedom, because it is not set out quite so explicitly in the Act, and a judge has to decide that the occupational requirement is “proportionate”. I see no reason to think they wouldn’t respect creative freedom in casting for a dramatic (or comic) performance. No one is going to decide that Rowan Atkinson was shamefully denied the Fresh Meat gig in place of Jack Whitehall, on grounds that he is better qualified to play a posh dickhead. He’s just the wrong age to play the character, and that’s fine.

But not everything on telly (or radio) should have a blanket exemption from discrimination law in the name of creativity. ‘Countryfile’ is not a dramatic performance and should not be treated as one (no matter how ‘contrived’ Atkinson thinks it may be). Neither should the News, or the Today programme. There is a serious debate to be had about society’s view of women, older people, and particularly older women in many walks of life, particularly in high profile roles, and television and radio are no exception. Miriam’s actions in bringing the case, the tribunal’s decision in upholding it (and, frankly, the BBC’s mea culpa in the wake of it) should be applauded.

This is the law being used very much for its proper purposes, and in the proper context, as an instrument of both individual justice and social change.

* (I should perhaps make clear that I’m not saying Indian waiters have silly voices. Just that Rowan Atkinson did in that sketch.)

About Mrs Markleham

Employment lawyer, discrimination lawyer, mildly peevish old woman.
This entry was posted in Age discrimination, Sex discrimination and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rowan Atkinson, Discrimination Law and Creative Free Expression (Or: The News Is Not Not the Nine O’Clock News)

  1. I agree and have nothing to add.

  2. Afterthought: I seem to remember Rowan Atkinson getting his knickers in a similar twist in 2004 over religious hatred laws. I haven’t noticed any increase in the number of comics or satirists getting sent down for smirking at religion since then. Chris Morris still walks free, despite sailing close to the wind in Four Lions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s